Alaska King Crab
Crabbin' on the Jamie Lynn
Howlin’ blizzard on a January night
curled up in this bed so tight
The phone’s persistent ring commands
the diver respond to its demands
As an “on call” diver by trade, odd jobs are a mainstay. The work is competitive; to get the calls, one must prove themselves over time to be reliable, efficient and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Many dives will involve unknown issues until one is on the job at depth. The particular task described herein is an example of the more extreme challenges one has encountered in over 40 years of commercial diving.
The phone rings, groggy eyes focus on the alarm clock. Three a.m. For the exception of the annoying ring, all is still. The kind of “still” when the home is buried in several feet of fresh, drifting snow. I'm buried as well, in the clouds of a down comforter on this January night in Cordova, Alaska. The lively sounds of a bar in full swing provide background noise which overrides the conversation, however, “diver!” from a familiar voice comes across, loud and clear.
“Can’t it wait ‘til daylight?” “NO!” is all one can make out, but with a tone of desperation, not uncommon among commercial fisherman. A breakdown often involves a race against time, as fishing opportunities are limited and missing one may cost thousands of dollars.
Regardless, the diver rolls out of bed for 150 bucks. The fact being, the fisherman’s misfortune pays the diver’s bills and puts food on the table as well. One of those symbiotic relationships so often found in Nature, like that of the remora and shark.
“Probably a line in the wheel” is the first thought idling through a hazy, half awake mind. The Jamie Lynn is a “crabber.” These heavy steel boats use fishing gear equal to their size. The line wrapped on her propeller and shaft is probably 5/8 diameter or higher polypropylene.
When “poly” wraps the propeller shaft, it gets hot, melting around the shaft in the small space between the front of the propeller and the stern bearing. Once the loose line is cleared away, the real work begins. With this thought in mind, a couple of fresh “Victorinox” serrated edge knives are tossed into the diver’s ditty bag.
The razor sharp, serrated blade is small, making it possible to work efficiently in the tight space where the line has melted. A typical “dive knife”is useless for this work. The “Victorinox,” as razor sharp as it is, will take a lot of pressure and sawing to cut into the hard plastic. This job may take most of the tank of air to accomplish. If it takes more, I will have to go to the Fire Department for a fill.
“Long-john” wool underwear are pulled on, then down to the basement for the dive gear. A well worn, red “Uni-Suit” is pulled off the hanger, flippers, leads, boots, gloves, mask and snorkel are gathered up, along with a high pressure scuba tank and buoyancy compensator.
A quick double-check is taken, then the components are checked for serviceability. Finding all in working order, the whole mess, for the exception of the dive suit, is tossed onto the snow in the bed of the truck. The clammy suit, cold and stiff from hanging in the unheated basement, is then donned with much complaint and profanity. This chills the diver before climbing into the truck where the heater has already warmed the cab. Within minutes I am overheating and sweating in the suit.
Pat, my dive tender this night hops in behind the wheel and has the old Ford plowing through 2 feet of fluffy light snow in the driveway. On reaching the highway which has been recently cleared, the drive down to the harbor is only a matter of minutes. The gear is offloaded into a cart at the head of the dock and wheeled down the ramp into the teeth of twenty five or thirty knots of wind out of the Northwest. The wind chill is certainly zero or below.
With heavy ice building on the mustache and beard, a worry from the past now niggles in, trying to take control of the mind. Fear loves divers. Fear is sneaky; it eases itself quietly into a situation where it recognizes an opportunity to interfere, creating mischief with a mind when it demands acute awareness of one's surroundings while simultaneously, giving proper attention to the task at hand. I have so often recognized this, I can physically feel its approach, which begins in the spine at the base of the skull and if left unchecked will race through the entire body to its extremities. This, the very definition of panic.
The memory which triggered this distraction springs up from a salvage job several years earlier. The weather that day was clear and cold, with the temperature about ten degrees Fahrenheit. The suit, a custom, step-in dry suit with the entry zipper running across the back from shoulder to shoulder is stiff, cold from hanging in the rigging overnight. The lack of pliability in the material resists the diver’s every move.
The body warms-up quickly, wrapped in wool and thick neoprene; the zipper is left open to prevent overheating as one continues to “gear-up.” A thirty-five pound lead weighted belt is buckled around the waist, two pound ankle weights are strapped on at each foot, as one will be trudging and dredging around the hull. Some underwater work, such as getting lines underneath a hull laying on the bottom is accomplished easier when diving “heavy,” as opposed to diving “light,” where the work is done while hovering around the vessel.
Pat fires up the compressor, warming the engine, this brings the volume tank up to operating pressure while I slip into one flipper. The single flipper method is handy when working hard to the bottom, giving the diver the ability to scramble around in the sand and mud or, using the flipper, reposition the body in the fluid environment. Often, the diver needs leverage during a task, one foot then is able to dig in, providing a strong point to work against. Leverage is sometimes difficult to gain, especially working mid-water.
The hood is pulled over the head, the mask is slipped on next and fitted carefully, double checking to ensure the seal is tight on the face, the mustache has been trimmed under the nose a tiny bit to minimize leakage there. The carabiner (pronounced “carabeener”) lashed to the “hookah” hose is snapped on to a “D” ring on the weight belt. The regulator goes into the mouth for a few pulls to check that it is functioning properly. The air is fresh, cold and tasteless. The diver takes this moment to relax and survey the scene. The water is winter cold, maybe thirty-four to thirty-six degrees with an uninviting frozen layer of fresh water run-off on the surface to break through.
The regulator comes out of the mouth, a blast of air is shot into the nose for the smell test. An important step to ensure no exhaust is being drawn in from the gas engine or oil leaking up from the crankcase, past the piston rings of the compressor, fouling the air. Mineral oil is used in place of motor oil in the compressor to minimize toxicity in the event oil reaches the compression chamber. A large, homemade filter is located between the diver and the compressor. The filter is a three foot, galvanized two inch diameter pipe, filled half with charcoal on the compressor side and “Kotex” on the diver side. Yes, diver’s make jokes about that.
With all the preliminaries done, gloves are pulled on, the tender helps in pushing on the gloves for a good fit. The regulator is stuck in the mouth, a few heavy pulls satisfies the diver who motions for the tender to zip up the suit. The zipper is pulled across the back of the shoulders, a couple of extra tugs are given at the end, making sure the closure is watertight. The diver steps up, a bit awkwardly, and stands precariously on the dock railing.
Excess air is exhausted from the suit so when I step off, I will sink straightaway. A simple personal preference over jumping in with a suit full of air and fussing around on the surface. Lastly the almost involuntary, mechanical move before stepping off into thin air, the left hand grabs the loose end of the weight belt, the right hand opens the buckle, the belly is sucked in, the belt cinched up and the buckle snapped down. Failure to do this, the belt will most likely be too loose in the water and start sliding around. As it is, I will make this tightening move again on hitting bottom, then I’ll be set to go to work.
With a healthy pull on the regulator as the leg is coming up to take the final step, cold air rushes down the back of the suit, self preservation has the diver bend backward, falling away from the water. The heavily leaded, off balance body crashes to the dock. Fits of hilarious relief consume me and entertain the onlookers. The zipper had opened wide in total failure. Leaded as I was with most of the excess air squeezed from the suit, had I taken that final step, I would have shot to the bottom like Jimmy Hoffa sporting his new cement shoes! Disaster was very narrowly avoided.
Before this “crabfest” begins tonight, the Uni-Suit zipper will be double checked. This will erase the toe-hold fear has attempted to gain by using the old memory as leverage to open the door a crack. This style of suit does not have a zipper across the back as the old tailor made model. This suit has a zipper running vertically from the back down through the crotch and up to the chest in front of the suit. Should the zipper suffer a malfunction and open wide, the crotch will be exposed and take the full effect of the impact.
“Not down there.” a voice is heard to say above the wind, as well as breaking the chain of thoughts of malfunctioning equipment. Shrouded in heavy, dark green slickers, the identity is concealed, but the voice is a dead giveaway. “Smitty.” A longtime friend and fisherman. I have done many dive jobs for him, I always get his first call which I appreciate very much. “What!?” “Up forward? Hit something?” “Nope, I need you topside.”
The gear is gathered up from the cart then hauled up the gangway of the Jamie Lynn. “Where we going?” “Nowhere.” Smitty, always a man of few words, even more tight lipped that one normally expects from him. He has added some intrigue here. Not diving under the boat, not going anywhere. One looks at the foot of ice and snow that covers the decks, hatches and rigging of the Jamie Lynn. She’s uninviting, ghostly in the blizzardly darkness.
“Turn on the deck lights” “No, can’t” “What am I doing here?”........ “Quiet...You’ll see.”
Now here, aboard the “Jamie Lynn”
shiverin’ shudderin’ ‘n shakin’ agin’
Awash in ice, she’s tied to the dock
Of this job the diver takes stock
”Over here.” A muffled voice, barely audible, rises above the wind. Smitty had disappeared from sight behind a stack of King Crab pots. Pat and I haul the gear around the pots and find Smitty standing at the hatch to the main hold. “In there,” giving the fish hold a nod.
The three figures are huddled on the frozen deck of the Jamie Lynn against a blizzard, in the darkness of an Alaskan winter. Two are shrouded in raingear, the third bears a strong resemblance to the “Pillsbury Doughboy,” in his bright red suit, however, this “doughboy” is not smiling.
Eyeballing the fish hold, there is something suspicious about this job. The heavy steel hatch is covered in ice and snow, it’s cracked open a few inches; “You got a problem in the hold?” “Shhhh! keep your voice down!” Finally, it dawns on me, ship and crew are in “stealth mode.”
“So, what’s goin’ on? got some “dungies” outa’ Icy Bay?” is whispered over to Smitty. “Do those look like dungy pots?” answering a question with a question. The wry response, the mischievous glint in his eye and the hint of a wide grin being forcibly suppressed, is not just a simple answer, it tells almost a whole story.
“How many?” “bout 20 or so.” “Ok, open the hatch.” “Can’t” “Why not?” “Cause we gotta fire up the generator, can’t do that.” “Oh.” This confirms the my suspicions, something’s fishy. Smitty didn’t say “the gen set is down,” he said they “couldn’t fire it up.” Of course not. If we do, crab lights will come on, there will be the monotonous hum of the generator, the squealing, screeching and squawking of hydraulics and rigging and of course, the banging of an six by six steel hatch against a steel deck. The whole town would be wondering what’s going on down on the Jamie Lynn?
The high pressure steel tank is removed from the buoyancy compensator then hefted up to the hatch coaming, the tank won’t go. It’s a fat tank. Without lifting the hatch, there is no way to get it in the hold. The plan is discarded and the alternative is discussed. If I can squeeze between the coaming and hatch, a snorkel will be used to tackle this job. Freediving in a dry suit, and a “Uni-Suit” at that, far from optimum. The suit with all the air that cannot be bled out must be carried down, which makes the dive harder to descend and faster coming up. Doable, but awkward and unprofessional.
The big “if”... can I squeeze through where the tank will not go? The weight belt, mask, snorkel and fins are set aside. The coaming is smooth, it appears it will not damage the zipper, but that remains to be seen. Once the head and shoulders are worked through, surprisingly, the rest of the body slides into the hold easily.
Cold salt water on the face energizes. I motion for mask and snorkel which are passed down immediately and carefully work them onto the face, constantly checking for leakage while doing so. Both fins are passed down next; without weight and a dry suit full of air, I roll around like a beach ball while struggling to get the flippers over the bulky “Uni-Suit” boots (ankle weights will not be used for freediving). This done, the weight belt is handed down and secured around the waist. A second cinching and I'm set. “Flashlight” is called out quietly. There is a pause, then Smitty pipes up, “Pat says it’s not in the ditty bag,” in a loud, agitated whisper. “It’s not in the ditty bag!” She chimes in “but I have an idea, we’ll be right back!”
Squeezed through that crack in the hatch
I’m thinkin’ “have I met my match?”
Floatin’ in the blackness of her belly
my gut’s tight ‘n turnin’ to jelly
A horde of King Crab lurk below
Down in that black scary below
A horde of King Crab wait for me
“Will this be my eternity?”
All goes dead quiet in the pitch black hole as I float motionless, lying on my back. I am alone. I am feeling very alone, floating here. Fear is here as well. Fear has no firm grip on me. I use this time alone to relax. Not just a casual relaxation, rather a concentrated relaxation where every muscle, starting with the feet, ankles and legs working up through the chest, arms and hands, shoulders, then the neck and head, right down to the facial muscles. Wherever tension is felt now, it is consciously relaxed. This extreme relaxation method combined with slow, deep breathing leaves no place for fear to latch on. Fear cannot thrive in this meditative state.
When the process of relaxing the muscles is completed, breathing becomes the focus, oxygenating the blood. The controlled breathing aids in maintaining the relaxed state, which conserves the accumulated oxygen. A freediver is prepared to go to work in this fashion.
A loudly whispered “Flashlight” accompanied with a flash of light breaks the trance, which thoughtfully was not aimed at the eyes. Pat and Smitty are well aware of the importance of protecting one’s night vision. When the gloved hand closes around the torch, the mind jumps into action, “what’s this?” “The best we could do.” “Ok.” “Fishermen?!” The first thought, masters of improvisation. Without even looking, I knew exactly what was in the hand. No doubt, the crew had run up to the galley for the solution. A cheapo disposable flashlight, the kind you see at the cash register in the hardware store. It had been stuffed into a couple of “Zip-Loc” sandwich bags.
I can see the duo up in the galley, giggling, giddy with delight when they observed their work and contrived to send their diver to the bottom with their custom “dive light.” A strong urge to start cussing is quashed, the freediver can not waste the vital energy required for the dive. True as well, I certainly do not want to pop the crew’s bubble. “Let them have their moment, they’re having fun out there.”
The focus returns to the task at hand, but not for the King Crab nor any hazards that may await, unseen in the dark. Perfection of the dive itself takes precedence. Life depends on it. The breathing is slow and very deep, the body hangs in a state of muscle relaxation, suspended in the fluid by the bubble of air trapped in the suit.
Excess air is exhausted from the suit, the head and snorkel are all that remain at the surface. I am as heavy as possible yet will be positive at 10 feet. When the lungs fill to capacity and beyond, I am lighter and rise a few a few inches. On the exhale, I sink back to eye level at the surface, the taste of salt is strong at the lips. Two grinning faces look like moons in the pitch black. They are staring from the partly open hatch as the moment draws near.
Another deep breath, the body rises, the snorkel comes out of the mouth, “Ok, here goes!” The snorkel goes back in the mouth, carefully I bend back a bit, taking aim. The two moons in the hatch take the snorkel shot full in the face.
Hyperventilation does begin
an’ too, the meditation within
In preparation for this dive
in order that I will survive
Resignedly, after a couple snarky remarks regarding the flashlight, the snorkel is stuck back in the mouth and I roll over on my belly, beginning a series of deep breaths while toying with the light. Chuckling to myself again, thinking about those two characters out there in the blizzard, wiping cold water off their mugs. Cozy in my suit, the zipper survived the abuse, the suit is warm and not leaking much. As usual, I’m confident I have the better job than those on deck; for myself, it has always been that way.
The light is working well, better than expected actually, as it is small and easily handled with a neoprene gloved hand. The light is bright, obviously fresh, now, if the baggies can keep it dry through the repetitive dives, this bit of simple ingenuity may take the credit for keeping this job on track.
The beam shines athwartships first, the side of the hold can just be seen. “water’s murky, maybe eight feet visibility.” The deep breaths continue. Deeper and slower. The mind checks that the body is relaxed. The mind still avoids thinking about what lies below, that is fear at work, trying to pry open the door.
Swinging the light forward, plumbing is exposed, most of which are part and parcel of a “live tank hold.” There are however extraneous hazards. As this is an old boat, there are odds and ends of unused brackets, pipes and hooks left hanging from repairs and refits. When I discover I cannot see the forward wall of the hold at the end of the beam, a stream of expletives is hollered into the snorkel. Swinging the light aft, same thing and another string of expletives. This is a cave dive. At night on one breath. With these thoughts, I tense up, the breathing is interrupted and now uneven. Fear seizes its opportunity!
“The light might go out in the cave!” “I could get hung up, I’ll be lost, I won’t find the air pocket!” Thoughts begin to stream, they come one after another, discordant, in quick succession. Fear is on the loose, but it is caught in the act! Back to square one.
The body is let go, the deep breathing is brought to a comfortable rhythm. Each consecutive breath is deeper, slower, in search of that one breath which I will carry to the bottom. I’m not there yet. The air is still too shallow in the lungs. The deep breathing continues. The interruption was unfortunate, however I now have some awareness of the dangers down here.
This mental picture of the hold shows the absolute necessity of always knowing where this six by six air pocket is. This is the only place where I can get air, there are no voids, this tank is full. The beam, for the first time is directed down, but the light shows nothing. Just murky green water. Fear is enjoying this.
I was hoping to get a glimpse of my quarry, but no such luck. I have never been in a live tank with crab, this is new. The beautifully mounted specimens in Alaskan hotels and bars pop to mind. “Yes, these critters are big.” I have caught dungeness crab aplenty, easily avoiding their claws, I have never handled a live King Crab, this is new. “Wonder how ya grab one of these critters,” but the thought is put aside, I’ll have to figure that out when I get down there.
The breaths are getting deep now, the light is brought full circle in a last check of all the visible hazards, there are enough that crab disappear from mind. Knowing where this hole is, consumes me.
Descending into pitch black
Fear tugs an’ wants to turn back
But with a small light to find my way
I hold fear at bay
Through this maze of plumbing ‘n tangle
I sharply increase this descending angle
A horde of King Crab lurk below
down in this black scary below
The chest heaves with each breath as huge amounts of air are sucked in, then blasted out the snorkel. One is no longer looking around, I am concentrating on the search for that one last monstrous breath that brings the lungs to maximum capacity and then some. This air will compress quickly with the dive, relieving the pressure of the breathhold.
The breathing has become forceful, rapid. Deep and rapid, one is light headed when the magic moment arrives. The lungs are full, so full they burn and it is almost difficult to maintain, however when I roll into the dive, I straightens the legs, when I sense the tips of the flippers have descended below the surface, a couple of soft kicks slides me quickly to ten feet of depth, I allow the body to go limp, where I may let the lead take control of the descent, the discomfort in the lungs evaporates.
The descent is slow, unlike diving in a wetsuit where one, at this point in the dive, may shoot to the desired depth uninhibited. The proportion of lead to the neoprene flotation in the wetsuit, being adjusted to the “standard” positive at 10 feet. A margin of safety built in to the dive. If the diver should pass out during the ascent, the positive buoyancy will take the unconscious person to the surface. This rather terrifying occurrence had always worried this diver, as theory tells us, cold air will wake the unconscious diver. After one personal event of this nature, I can at least report, the cold air proved effective in reviving me instantly.
I was diving with my instructor in the early days of my lessons. I had been working as a dive tender on a sea urchin boat in Puget Sound. The harvest was local, Pt. Wilson on Admiralty Inlet. I was doing quite well on my share, a hundred bucks or more a day. Working on deck was great, but the divers were knocking down five hundred a day and more. What was curious, they were very obviously having more fun than me. At times they would come up laughing, all excited, “did you see that!?” Usually it had to do with encounters with the Sea Lion population.
The divers are hard at work, concentrating on and hooking and bagging urchins while hovering or swimming. Often, when something happens, the diver’s back is turned. By the time the diver realizes something is going on, he’s in the thick of it. The tender only gets to witness what happens at the surface, but then must suffer the story ad nauseam at the tavern after work.
It is not long, after many days of tending three divers on the Sonny Boy, I approached my friend Ward, one of the most skilled divers on the Quimper peninsula, (and there were a good number of them) asking to teach me how to dive for urchins. He waves his arm back at Union Wharf, “round up a suit at “Ralph’s” on the wharf, he’s an old freediver, he’s got all the stuff and can fill you in. He knows a lot.” He grins, laughs and starts up doing the jig on his miniature “Radon Craft.” Ron Radon also a strong local freediver, designed and built these boats at his shop in Port Townsend for abalone and sea urchin divers on the West Coast.
There’s really is no room for myself, a thirty pound octopus, still alive, squirmy and trying to escape, and Ward, stomping, twirling and clowning at the helm in his rubber suit. He had just popped to the surface with this writhing sea monster wrapped around him. “Here! Take this!” Dutifully, I wrestled and peeled legs off him until the beast was in the boat. “ya, whoa, grabbing this thing on a breath of air, that’s sporty.” I am intrigued by this breathhold diving, watching Ward in action. That’s was it, I popped the question.
The following day I meet Ward on the dock near his boat. I had visited “Ralph” at the wharf, where I rented the gear for today’s first lesson. The gear came with a couple hours of tales of freediving competitions gone by. Port Townsend was a center for world class competitions in the years he recalled.
“Freediving” the art of breathhold diving. Ralph was a champion in competitive freedive events and informs me Ward is top notch.. “You’re fortunate to have Ward as an instructor, he knows the ropes. He’s a dedicated diver with an impressive ability to hold his breath. His dad, Frank, was a diver as well and got Ward started early.”
Ward is standing by his boat, casually flipping a silver dollar, his wide grin becomes a belly laugh when he tosses the coin haphazardly into the water. “Go get it” is all he said. I was already suited up. I slipped into the fins, buckled on the twenty pounds of lead Ralph had calculated would be about right for my build combined with the 3/8 inch thickness of the suit. Mask and gloves donned, a quick double check, then a simple fall off the dock.
Never having worn a wetsuit, I expected to sink straightaway, but Ralph knew I would be light, possibly too light, and had given me another three pound lead in case it was needed. “Get my dollar!” Ward began chiding immediately, “What are you doing still on the surface? Get down there!” What I was doing was trying to get the water out of a flooded mask. This was accomplished by blowing air out of the mask through the nose. I had read a bit about various beginner techniques, clearing a mask is one of the most basic. Never holding your breath when breathing compressed air, especially on ascent was another the book had emphasized; Ward and Ralph had already been drumming that into my head.
“All set,” I mimicked the move I had seen Ward make many times when he was wrestling octopus, a kind of “tuck and go” move. He would disappear from the surface, legs pointed straight up, board stiff. He then glides out of sight with hardly a ripple. There is no flopping of the fins to be seen at the surface. The move is ballet graceful.
One can feel the lead speed the descent, something new, never experienced when snorkeling. I let the lead carry me, where I make a hard landing on a sandy bottom. The coin is gleaming, sunbeams streaking through the water light it up. The prize is scooped up, one leg gets set on the bottom then gives a hard push for the surface.
Ward and I began diving at the “Dolphin” as often as possible. I was getting proficient, fast. (The “Dolphin” is the old WWII anchor for the submarine net protecting the Indian Island Magazine, a major weapons storage facility).
This particular day I was doing my very best to spear enough fish for dinner and trading stock. Ward was knocking hell out of them, I was making another dive when he shot past me, headed to the surface with 8 or 10 perch hanging from his belt. He was grinning, showing off the nice big cabazon on the end of his spear. A perfect head shot and one of the tastiest fish in the Salish Sea.
I continue to the bottom, where we had driven the school of perch. They are congregated at the base of the Dolphin. I take a shot, the school scatters, but there is a fish flopping at the end of my spear. I remove it, hang it at my waist and continue the hunt. Ward, arrives takes a shot which strikes a perch and scatters the school. I give chase, kicking hard, wasting my air. The school frustrates my attempts at a shot, then “bam, got one!” I remove the fish, hang it next to the first, meanwhile Ward has moved in again and taken another fish. I chase after the school, which are spooked, disbanded in all directions. I give chase until my chest is burning at fifty feet. I am flat out of oxygen and push off the bottom for the surface. I kick hard. Hard, desperate, fast kicks sucking every ounce of energy available to get to the surface. Light headed, just as one is blacking out, cold air slaps his face, douses the pain and prevents total black out. This convinced me, one would be revived reflexively should they pass out on ascent.
Now here, in the hold of the Jamie Lynn, this descent is controlled by the compression of the air in the suit. As the air compresses, the speed of the descent increases. One takes this brief time to shine the torch where the hatch was. It is just visible, barely, but there is no mistaking the defunct plumbing and broken brackets hanging like stalactites. I strain to make out the hatch, where the only air will be found. The safe haven disappears from the beam of light. I have fallen into the netherworld.
Falling falling into the blackness
This is my little cup of madness
Falling falling into the madness
This is my little cup of blackness
Now the horde appears in my light
an’ this is one hell of a sight
They have taken an aggressive stance
hoping for a meal perchance
Preoccupied with finding the way back, the light is trained up, into an alien green world. Having rolled over to keep a directional sense of where the hatch is located, I am drifting toward the bottom, carried butt first by the lead at my waist. I am only slightly negative, a few more pounds of lead would be helpful, maybe three or four, and the descent would be much quicker.
For the exception of the beam of light, there is only pitch black liquid where imagination is free to roam where it likes and see what it wants to see. Fear is there too, but fear has no power, for this dive is a meditation at this point; the body in complete relaxation. Every muscle asleep, the mind quiet, devoid of chatter. The breathhold is comfortable at this relatively shallow depth. Truly a netherworld, falling weightless through inner space, comforted by a narrow shaft of light.
The light is brought around, still pointing toward the ceiling, searching for hazards to avoid on the return trip, one has not given the King Crab a thought, he is really only concerned with finding his way back to the air pocket.
There is no sound, all the senses are alert, tuned now to the dangers within the cave. Tiny hairs stand on the back of the neck, the ones my dad would pull. He was not a spanker, he would go for those little hairs. A couple quick tugs, and this little boy got the message loud and clear. Maybe that made them extra sensitive, I don’t know, but it did turn my light toward the bottom to prepare for landing.
“Crab Bait?! I’m CRAB BAIT!!” The crazy thought flashes in neon orange across the screen of my mind with the shock. That silly joke used so often in so many ways, my first thought. “Yikes!”
As luck would have it, I had rolled over face down to shine the light, allowing me to splay out instantly, and come to a dead stop, inches, literally, inches from the claws of this mass of crab. The King Crab are huge, as most folks are well aware. These critters are monstrous aliens of the deep, magnified by a full one third with the divers underwater vision. Fear sees an inroad, but is laughed away. “Ha! No way their gonna get me, no way!”
“Haha you can’t get me an’ you fucker’s can’t jump!” No, there is no fear, this diver is giddy with excitement.
Narrowly missed falling into those claws
waiting to take me to their jaws
Just above the salivating horde I hover
still holding that breath while I recover
On compressed air, one’s reaction at this moment would, no doubt, be hyperventilation; I would be sucking down the tank like a beer in a drinking contest. The tender up top would see massive bubble action at the surface.
Freediving does not offer the luxury of hyperventilation. One must remain quiet to conserve oxygen. one must deal with the danger at hand, in this case, the lucky stop, followed by a backpedal to hover a couple feet above the mob.
From one side to the other I swim
trying to snag a crab on the rim
But the horde moves as one, claws pointed at me threatenin’ to take me to eternity
Some thoughts now pass through the mind, the “what ifs?” come first. What if I had asked Pat and Smitty to hand me the extra three pound lead? What if those hairs on the back of my neck had not raised the alarm? Then comes the “what now?” which springs from the awareness of the moment; “I’m safe, my air is good. I’m good.”
Concern for the location of the air pocket has evaporated, the focus now, the King Crab. This horde of critters I hover above are packed tight together, upright, every claw directed at the food. Me. This is the scene which greets whatever falls to the sea floor. These scavengers, at this moment, are doing the one thing they do very well, compete for food and keep the ocean clean. Nature's "Roomba," scurrying around in the deep, bumping into obstructions and each other, then racing off, cleaning as they go.
Shining the light over the crab, searching for a vulnerability, it is easy to see, their hind legs are a weakness, same as the dungeness crab. The floor of the hold is not completely covered, the circular edge of the group is exposed wherever the light hits, this becomes the target for a hind leg grab.
Several hard kicks toward the end of beam of light, which is also the edge of the horde fails miserably as this entire mass moves in unison to capture the food. These crab show no fear, they are aggressive, they show hunger.
Seeing this, a tight turn is made accompanied by hard, fast kicks, squeezing every bit of power out of the fins to get to the opposite edge of the mass, but again, the move is thwarted by the coordinated counter of the critters.
Lungs aching for air, I make a quick fake splitting the horde, it’s their fatal mistake
The crab try an’ close ranks, only too late
havin’ already taken the bait
Lungs screaming for air, I make a desparte grab
an' whaddaya know, I come up with two crab
A horde of King Crab lurk below
down in that black scary below
The ploy is a success! Pulling up short at the center of the pack, then wheeling back from where I came. The reaction of the crab left them wide open to attack when half the critters followed my move, the other half kept going they way we had started out.
Seeing the fracture, I dive straight at it, the critters are high tailing it, not standing in defense. Reaching out, two hind legs fall into the hand. On the upward swoop, I discover another advantage to the bagged flashlight. I am able to transfer one leg to the hand with the flashlight, thereby I am able to carry both crab, one in each hand while simultaneously shooting the light above to locate the hatch.
Disoriented from the chase and no visible sign of the hatch, I am now starving for air and do not know which way to swim. My antennae are out for the hazards I know will foul my ascent, possibly tear open the dry suit. There’s fear now, seizing the perfect moment, cranking up the thought process to insert itself into the dive. It is unwelcome. Recognition of its presence alters my focus. I must relax every muscle, I let them go limp, reserving oxygen. I must stay cool, find the hole and breathe. “Find the hole.” Fear slips away.
Blacking out one must prevent
while making this speedy ascent
Up now through that plumbing maze
consciousness is just a haze
The fins stop pumping, I am suspended, motionless, the light is played back and forth, searching for anything familiar in the plumbing; nothing, and no sign of the hatch. A few soft kicks, the diver follows his light and the plumbing to a dead end. “Ok! Other way and to the center.” I follow the plumbing back the way I came. My oxygen is nearly exhausted, I am light headed. I need air, the need is so great I am about to choke. I redouble the effort to hold the breath, as choking will finish me.
Blackness is closing in, I am about to pass out when the hole is spotted. Two powerful kicks and I break the surface, gasping huge amounts of air in and out of the lungs.
Surging through the surface veil
cold fresh air does not fail
To douse the fire within the chest I had just done my very best
Still gasping for air I toss my catch
at faces peering through the hatch
Snappity clackity, Snappity clack There ya go folks, I’ll be right back!